Monday, February 27, 2012

Senator Calls for Legacy of Opportunity for Vets

Sen. Patty Murray, made a signal announcement during her presentation to the Chamber's Military Affairs Forum last week.  She called for a Legacy of Opportunity that we can offer to our newest veterans as we offered that opportunity to our Greatest Generation of veterans following WW II.

And, she promised to work for its implementation by calling for a first field Senate Veteran Affairs Committee hearing in the Tacoma region.

The complete text of her presentation follows:

Thank you Rick (Stevens, Chair, Miliary Affairs Committee) for the kind introduction.

I want to thank Tom (Pierson, Pres./CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber), his board and staff - along with the Lakewood Chamber CEO, Linda Smith and her board and staff for inviting me here today, and for their continued support of veterans and service members throughout the South Sound region.

I also want to thank all of the business leaders, Chamber members, and local leaders that are joining us today.

This is such an important conversation for this region to be having - and I'm so proud that this is always a community that is knowledgeable, engaged, and willing to do whatever it takes to support those men and women in uniform, who around here are your neighbors, family, and friends.

As many of you know, I am currently serving as the Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

And I'm serving in that position at what I believe is really a defining moment in the treatment of our nation's veterans and service members.

It's a time when our older veterans population - including so many of our Vietnam veterans -are increasingly relying on VA care.

But it is also a pivotal point for an entire generation of post 9/11 veterans who after a decade of repeated deployments, stress on their family and personal relationships, and the visible and invisible wounds of war, are facing a difficult transition home.

It's a challenge that we have to meet - and one that I'm so pleased that I've been able to be in a position to help address.

It's also a challenge that here in the backyard of one of our nation's most important military bases - you know as well as anyone across the country.

And that's why I wanted to come to talk to you today.

The only way that we will be able to ease the difficult transition home for these young men and women is working together- with private and public partnerships, with investments in unique new programs,  with unified encouragement to seek mental health care and overcome stigmas, and very importantly, with a plan to get these veterans back to work.

As many of you here know, approximately 6,000 soldiers transition out of the Army from JBLM each year - and each one them faces a job market that is uncertain and highly-competitive.

It's a problem that they face along with nearly 13 million other Americans...but for our veterans many of the barriers to employment are unique.

That's because for those who have worn our nation's uniform - and particularly for those young veterans who have spent the last decade being shuttled back and forth to war zones half a world away: The road home isn't always smooth, the red tape is often long, and the transition from the battlefield to the work place is never easy.

Too often our veterans are being left behind by their peers who didn't make the same sacrifices for their nation at a critical time in their lives.

Too often they don't realize the skills they possess and their value in the workplace.

And too often they are discouraged by a job market that is unfamiliar to them after their service.

But as all those who know the character and experiences of our veterans in this region understand, this shouldn't be the case.

Our veterans have the: leadership ability, discipline, and technical skills to not only find work, but to excel in the technical industries our state leads the way in.

But despite that being the case - the statistics have continued to paint a grim picture.

According to the Department of Labor, young veterans between the ages of 20 and 24 have an unemployment rate that is over 20%.

That is one in five of our nation's heroes who can't find a job to support their family, don't have an income that provides stability, and don't have work that provides them with the self-esteem and pride that is so critical to their transition home.

And so the question becomes: How could this be?

How could these young men and women who have performed so admirably, who know how to lead and know how to get a job done be struggling so mightily?

It's a question I set out to answer in preparing my bill to overhaul veterans employment efforts on the federal level.

And it's a question that I knew I had to get answered first-hand from those veterans struggling to find work.

So I spent a longtime crisscrossing our state visiting worker retraining programs, VA facilities, and veterans' halls.

And in discussion after discussion - including many here in Pierce County - I heard from veterans about the roadblocks they face.

What I heard was heartbreaking and frustrating.

I heard from veterans who said they no longer write that they're a veteran on their resume because of the stigma they believe employers attach to the invisible wounds of war.

I heard from medics who returned home from treating battlefield wounds and couldn't get certifications to be an EMT or to drive an ambulance.

I spoke with veterans who said that many employers had trouble understanding the vernacular they used to describe their experiences in an interview or on a resume.

I talked to veterans who told me that the military spent incalculable hours getting them the skills to do their job in the field, but little time teaching them how to translate those skills into the workplace.

The problems were sometimes complicated and sometimes simple.

Most importantly though - they were preventable.

Unfortunately when I relayed the concerns of our state's unemployed veterans to federal government officials for solutions, none came.

What became clear is for too long we have invested billions of dollars in training our young men and women with skills to protect our nation - only to ignore them once they leave the military.

For too long, at the end of their career we patted our veterans on the back for their service and then pushed them out into the job market alone.

So in May of last year I introduced a bipartisan veterans employment bill that takes the challenges I heard and translates them into solution to ease the transition from the battlefield to the working world.

For the very first time, my bill required broad job skills training for every service member as they leave the military as part of the military's Transition Assistance Program.

It allowed service members to begin the federal employment process prior to separation in order to facilitate a truly seamless transition from the military to jobs in government.

And it required the Department of Labor to take a hard look at what military skills and training should be translatable into the civilian sector in order to make it simpler for our veterans to get the licenses and certifications they need.

All of these are real, substantial steps to put our veterans to work.

And late this year they were combined with a tax credit for employers that hire veterans, and help to train older veterans for in-demand jobs, in the VOW to Hire Heroes Act.

And I'm so pleased to note that just two months ago I was right next to President Obama when he signed my bill into law.

But while that bill is a critical first step - it should only be that: a first step.

The next step is why I'm here today - to help build partnerships with you - business leaders who know our military community better than anyone.

Now, I do have to mention that in this region, you are already ahead of the curve.

I just came from a tour this morning of General Plastics right here in Tacoma where I heard about the partnership they have established with Clover Park Technical College to get veterans jobs in the aerospace field.

And I know that at JBLM programs like the Army Career and Alumni program are models for how we can create individualized transition plans that get service members thinking well before separation from the Army about things like education options, choosing a trade and making sound financial decisions.

And of course, I can't leave out the amazing work that our local Guard does on the J-9 program that for years now has been the envy of Guard units across the country.

Thanks to the leadership of people like Tom Riggs that program has put over 900 hundred state Guard and Reserve members into jobs and has had a big economic impact all over our state.

But we all know that more can be done.

In addition to aerospace connections, we need to continue to build relationships between veterans and local employers in the technology and biomedical fields.

We need to utilize our Worksource centers and one-stop job training centers to get veterans the skills they need to fill the jobs that are open in their areas.

And we need to build upon the relationships we have with community colleges and universities.

But in the here and now, we also need to be clear about what local businesses can do to help.

So - as I do whenever I'm given the opportunity to stand in front of so many people that make hiring decisions - I need to make my pitch.

And I don't want to just encourage you to hire veterans - which I know many of you are doing - I also want to pass along the things that are working to sustain veterans hiring.

First, please work with your human resources staff to educate them about the importance of hiring veterans and how skills learned in the military translate to the work you do.

I can't tell you how often I hear from veterans who tell me that the terms they use in interviews and in resumes fail to get through to interviewers.

Second, consider developing a program to provide job training and resources for transitioning service members.

This is something I've seen done at large organizations like Microsoft and the Port of Seattle but also at smaller companies in conjunction with local colleges.

In fact, the most successful of these programs capitalize on skills developed during military service but also build on them with unique skills in any given industry.

Third, publicize job openings at your company with Veterans Service Organizations and at JBLM to help connect veterans with jobs;

Fourth, develop an internal veterans group within your company to mentor recently discharged veterans, and finally, if you can, please reach out to local community colleges and universities to develop a pipeline of the many, many local veterans that are using GI bill benefits to gain employment in your particular area.

If you can utilize just a few of these steps, I'm confident that we will be able to continue to build on the local success we have had in hiring veterans.

The other critical challenge that we face in the transition of thousands of veterans home to this region - and one that goes hand-in-hand with employment - is ensuring timely access to top quality mental health care.

I know that we have all read with concern the headlines over the past few years about individual service members coming home, experiencing great difficulties in readjusting,

And ultimately doing harm to themselves, their families, or their futures.

But I also know that in this region - we read those stories knowing that they are not reflective of the overwhelming majority of service members who - without much notice - make the Puget Sound one of the best places in the country to live and raise a family.

However, we can't afford to leave any service member or veteran behind.

We can't ignore the rash of local suicides that have happened over the course of the past year.

We can't paper over the fact that nationwide veterans are still being made to wait far beyond the mandated two weeks for an initial appointment for mental health care.

And we can't deny that ten years after the beginning of these wars a stigma still exists that often time means that returning service members keep mental health care at arm's length even as loved ones urge them to talk to someone about their experiences.

We must continue to get these problems out in the open.

And that's why I plan in the next few months to hold the first Veterans' Affairs Committee field hearing I've called as Chairman right here in the Tacoma region to discuss these issues.

I plan to invite Senior VA and DoD officials, local community leaders, and individual veterans from around this region to testify about ways the federal government and the local community can work together to improve the transition home.

And in particular, we are going to examine how we can improve access to mental health care.

As we all know, the Puget Sound remains a good place for veterans to live, work, and raise a family.

And that's because we have been vigilant about holding the VA accountable, utilizing local resources,  and making our military families welcome.

But with continued growth at JBLM and more veterans coming here for that quality of care - the challenges we face will continue.

Things like traffic through the I-5 corridor will continue to present problems for service members and for the surrounding communities.

But I know that we are ready to respond - most recently I have fought to secure millions from the federal government to address these traffic issues - and I know that locally you all have pitched in as well.

This is the collaborative approach that we are going to have to take in everything we do for our veterans.

You know, it's no secret that back in the "other Washington" we are sharply divided on any number of economic and political issues facing average Americans right now.

But this is one issue we are rarely divided on.  It unites even the most unlikely partners because they realize that:

We have all made a promise to those who have signed up to serve.

And we all need to keep it because so much on the line.

As many of you know, my father was a veteran of World War II. And as I have mentioned before, he was one of the first on the beach at Okinawa and received a Purple Heart for his service there.

But what I don't always talk about is the fact that when he came home from war - he came home to opportunity.  He came home to a community that supported him.

He came home to college - then to a job.  A job that gave him pride.   A job that helped him and my mother raise seven children - who've gone on to support families of their own.

And that's the legacy of opportunity we have to live up to for today's veterans.   It's a legacy we all have the burden of continuing and one that this community has openly embraced.

As I said before we are at a defining moment in the history of how we treat our veterans.

For many of us - particularly those who grew up with the Vietnam War - it's clear that we stand perilously close to repeating some of the same mistakes of the past.  But I am working every day to avoid that.

And I know that here in the South Sound we have the resources, ideas, and leaders to be a model for communities across the country.

I look forward to continuing to work with all of you to keep the promise we've made to provide not only care - but opportunity - to all those who've worn the uniform.

Thank you and I'd love to take any questions you have.

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